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Saving the Chesapeake Oyster

Saving the Chesapeake Oyster

Waterside communities in Maryland have come together to save the precious oysters crucial to the eco-system of the Chesapeake Bay.

The glistening waters of the Chesapeake Bay, dotted with white-sailed yachts, are one of the America’s most magical seascapes. But beneath their serene surface is a struggle for survival. Their famous oysters, once described as “Chesapeake white gold”, have plummeted in numbers over recent years.

A combination of over-fishing and pollution has seen oyster reef acreage drop from 200,000 in the 1960s to around 36,000 today. Numbers of watermen setting out in their majestic skipjack oyster boats have dwindled from some 700 a century ago to fewer than ten now operating commercially.

Step forward the Marylanders Grow Oysters (MGO) program, one of several initiatives seeking to revive the population of the creatures that act as barometers of the bay’s health. An impressive 1,500 waterfront properties, including the Inn at Perry Cabin by Belmond, have banded together to reverse the oysters’ decline. The hotel’s Robert Richcreek explains: “Oysters filter the water as they feed—playing a vital role in the eco-system. One adult filters up to 50 gallons of water per day—amazing considering their size.”

Since 2013, visitors to the resort have been able to stroll through its gardens to the private dock, where a cage of spats (baby oysters) bobs in the water. Once fully grown, the molluscs are removed and taken to a special sanctuary on the bay. As Richcreek notes: “A huge effort is underway to ensure that they survive and prosper.”

The resort’s Stars restaurant subsequently signed up as the area’s first culinary venue to recycle oyster shells. These are taken to a hatchery to be cleaned, inoculated with larvae and reared to become spats. Over the past year the inn’s efforts alone have seen the reintroduction of at least 120,000 new oysters into the bay.

There are now around 225 restaurants, caterers and other businesses actively participating in the shell recycling programme—but visitors to Maryland can also lend a hand. A great way to support both the oysters and the skipjack owners who harvest them is to take a waterside table and order a plate of this regional delicacy, beloved of seafood connoisseurs for centuries. It’s difficult to imagine an easier—or more delicious—way to help the bay.

Discover more about oysters on a cruise across the Chesapeake Bay aboard the historic HM Krentz skipjack dredging boat.